How to explain this pandemic to future generations? Museums are figuring it out now, even as coronavirus spreads

Handmade cloth masks collected for donation by registered nurses Hope Kilian, left, and Emily Smith, right, along with Nic Breutzman, center, Smith's boyfriend are shown in this April 27 file photo. The city of Winona is now requiring masks be worn in indoor public places starting Friday. (Joe Ahlquist /

PHILADELPHIA —A few hours after the twin towers fell, Jan Ramirez recalled, a colleague’s ash-covered husband walked into her workplace at the New York Historical Society, stripped off his dust mask, and set it on her desk.

“Consider this your first artifact donation,” he said.

It would not be the last. In the weeks and months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Ramirez and other archivists and curators worked to locate and identify objects and documents — from bent steel beams to “missing” posters — that would help tell the story to future generations.

“The first order was triage, get the material to safe, secure locations, and start to figure out the questions you needed to ask,” said Ramirez, now chief curator of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York.

Today, archives and museums in the Philadelphia region and across the country have undertaken a new, in-the-moment search, seeking to preserve materials that document the coronavirus crisis even as the pandemic rages on.


Business-closure signs. Thank-you cards to doctors and nurses. Toilet paper. Test kits. Grocery lists. Handicrafts woven or carved to pass the time indoors. Home-school lesson plans. All can help tell the story.

Because personal contact can be dangerous, some institutions have asked people to hold onto potentially interesting physical goods for the time being, and are focusing on mementos that can be safely shared, like photographs and paper documents.

Institutions have been making their desires known through website announcements, press releases, news stories, and other public appeals.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has formed what it calls a Rapid Response Collecting Task Force to document scientific and medical events, as well as impacts in business, politics, and culture. The Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles has begun collecting images; the Dunn Museum in suburban Chicago is gathering stories and pictures; the Sloan Museum in Flint, Mich., is asking for journals, art, and videos.

“What makes it challenging is we’re still in the middle of it,” said Melissa Marinaro of the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, which like other museums is closed to the public for now. “We’re getting a lot of submissions of journals and diaries, and artists have sent sketches, paintings, and drawings.”

Marinaro wants to acquire an example of the plastic safety shields that have sprung up at store check-out counters, “a piece that gives you a better sense of the physical experience, of the sentiment we’re all getting, that fear of what could be traveling in the air.”

One big challenge: There aren’t many distinct physical artifacts — one N95 mask is generally the same as another — compared to the numbers generated by other disasters or conflicts.

World War II produced millions of different pieces, including uniforms, guns, insignia, helmets, shells, maps, and medals, across more than 30 countries. So many relics have been retrieved from the sea-bed grave of the Titanic that anyone with a few dollars can buy a small piece of the ship on eBay.


Another complication is that no central physical site defines the pandemic. People can walk the fields of Gettysburg or the beaches of Normandy to sense how history unfolded, but there’s no specific location for the COVID-19 disaster.

If history holds, there might not even be a monument.

None was erected a century ago when Philadelphia was devastated by the 1918 flu pandemic, suffering 14,000 fatalities in six weeks. Today, the only memorials are the gravestones of the dead.

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, home to both the Mütter Museum and the Historical Medical Library, is working to document and save digital material on how its members and fellows are responding to the outbreak. Ultimately, the project will show how an institution dedicated to high medical ideals reacted to the crisis.

The college has joined with the 40-member Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections to coordinate and eventually share material gathered by organizations, from the American Philosophical Society to the William Way LGBT Community Center to the Free Library.

“We’re gathering, but we’re not interpreting,” said college librarian Beth Lander. “Right now we are still in the event.”

The constant challenge to curators is to predict what will be meaningful in a hundred years.

Some items are instantly recognized as historically important. The American flags that flew at Iwo Jima — the Marines raised two on Feb. 23, 1945, though only the second was captured in the famous photograph — were in the possession of the Marine Corps Museum even before the war ended.


Other, ordinary pieces can be made significant by events that follow.

Some years ago, a customer at a Liverpool yard sale found an old letter from a local musician tucked inside a book. The note happened to have been written in 1960 by an 18-year-old Paul McCartney, inviting a mystery drummer to audition for a job in the still-forming Beatles.

It sold for $55,412 at auction in 2011.

A big reason that institutions are moving even amid the pandemic is that time is merciless, said Philip Mead, chief historian of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

Its passage means physical items must survive more years, more moves, more fires, more keep-or-throw-out decisions, more changing notions of worth.

“Every generation sort of curates the surviving items from the past, selects out things that can be discarded and what needs to be preserved,” he said. “Those choices differ as we change our ideas about what we believe, who should be commemorated, what we want to inspire future generations.”

It’s a mistake to think that what’s abundant today — like protective masks — will be plentiful tomorrow. Tens of thousands of enlisted men’s coats were made and worn during the Revolution., Mead said. Today, none is known to survive.

Philadelphia has endured at least two previous plagues: Yellow Fever in the summer of 1793, which killed 10% of the 50,000 residents in what was then the nation’s capital and largest city, and the flu that sickened a quarter of the 2 million Philadelphians and killed 17,500 from September 1918 through February 1919.

The 1918 flu hit so quickly and viciously that “it didn’t leave many artifacts behind,” said historian Jane E. Boyd, who helped create the Mütter’s prescient exhibit on the topic, Spit Spreads Death, which opened last year for a multi-year run.

Perhaps its most moving artifact, found in Drexel University’s costume collection, was an embroidered purse tied to a powerful personal story.

In fall 1918, a New Jersey woman named Naomi Ford came to Philadelphia for some early Christmas shopping, buying her gifts and writing out tags for each family member. But Ford, who was pregnant, caught the flu and died on Oct. 21.

Her grief-stricken mother put away the never-delivered gifts. The purse emerged for the Mütter exhibit, still in its gift box and tagged, “For Cousin Helen.”

Today, Boyd said, she would save the pieces that seem common. Masks. Ventilators. Quarantine signs. Diaries. The hand-drawn rainbow pictures that people put in their windows for children. Even unemployment documents, say, a handwritten list of the hundred times someone tried to call the government office for aid.

The millions of digital photos, audios and videos offer rich, in-the-moment documentation of the pandemic. But they would take lifetimes to review. And the machines that store them will become obsolete, meaning the material will need to be transferred again and again.

“All the social media — it’s going to be hard to know what to save and what to keep,” Boyd said. “I don’t envy the future historians, a hundred years from now, who’ll have to sort through all of this.”

If you have something to donate: People who have objects, documents or physical artifacts they wish to share with museums should contact the institutions directly, through the information on their websites.


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